Vintage, youthful Isaac Stern has three fine collaborations revived in this trinity of violin concertos.
The Young Isaac Stern = HAYDN: Violin Concerto No. 1 in C Major; MENDELSSOHN: Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64; TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – Isaac Stern, violin/ Philharmonic-Symphony of New York/ Leopold Stokowski/ Philadelphia Orchestra/ Pierre Monteux/ Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine Audio PASC 519, 79:51 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Mark Obert-Thorn resuscitates live recordings, 1945-1950, of the Ukrainian-American violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), whose musicianship later became clouded by his idiosyncratic and ruthless version of empire-building, abetted by Columbia Artists Management. The young Isaac Stern, who practiced his chosen instrument with due diligence, admitted his need for punctual and punctilious technical application, and the sheer will to endeavor paid off in his 1943 debut at Carnegie Hall with his esteemed piano accompanist Alexander Zakin.
The earliest of the revived broadcast performances, from Philadelphia (13 January 1945), features a last-minute program change, substituting the Mendelssohn Concerto for that of the Beethoven, and the Philadelphia Orchestra enjoys the rare leadership of veteran Pierre Monteux. A few nervous measures at the opening soon resolve into a dramatic, often piercing interpretation of the most familiar of all Romantic violin concertos. Stern opts for the long line in the first movement, presenting a classically poised structure infused with direct and authentic sentiment. At the cadenza portion, Stern breaks a string, co-opts the concertmaster’s instrument, and proceeds with the resolved aplomb of the seasoned professional. Some truly breakneck speed marks Stern’s segue to the blistering transition to the second movement Andante, with Monteux’s never missing a beat. The ensuing song possesses an unaffected intimacy and grace, quite touching. The last movement, typically, lavishes upon us the flighty, impish virtuosity that combines fiddle gymnastics with the composer’s exuberant gifts from his later music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Light and deft, the performance swoops, dances and careens to a joyful, appropriately sparkling peroration.
The c. 1765 Haydn Violin Concerto with Stern and Leopold Stokowski (4 December 1949) from Carnegie Hall enjoys a refreshing “authenticity,” with harpsichord continuo and cadenzas added by Alexander Zakin. The piece itself likely suited the art of Luigi Tomasini, often associated the Esterhazy Orchestra; and its series of double stops, chains of dotted notes, shifts of register, and high, ornamental tessitura meant to showcase his particular virtuosity. Stern sports a slashing, vigorous approach, and Stokowski’s ensemble urges the forward motion of the opening Allegro molto appassionato with fluid security. The Andante features an extended, lovely cantilena over plucked strings, and the style could easily be construed for Vivaldi. Its middle section becomes more legato, only to break off for the double-stopped cadenza. The Finale: Presto proffers a galant version of a gavotte, and here the style might suggest the influence of Viotti. The easy fluency of the collaboration sparkles with youthful vitality, making us wish that Stokowski, especially, had devoted more time than his one excursion into the Haydn symphonic realm, the No. 53 “Imperial,” bequeathed us.
The Tchaikovsky Concerto—wrongly attributed to Haydn on the back jacket—delivers us a Koussevitzky collaboration (23 August 1950) in a seminal, Russian work that he never took the opportunity to record commercially. Koussevitzky had already relinquished his twenty-five-year post in Boston; in the year remaining to him he appeared in Los Angeles to lead some fine soloists, like Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Stern, in repertory he knew well, some of which had been issued on the defunct Rockport label. The brisk opening pages, Allegro moderato, delivered slowly with intoned care and steady propulsion, soon evolve by stepwise motion into a martial furor of no small intensity. Stern’s lines remain long but his phrases retain the songful nature of Tchaikovsky’s ardent melodic arch, interrupted by passionate jabs from the orchestra. The two orchestral tuttis—trumpets ablaze—deliver the kind of explosive optimism we expect from a Koussevitzky reading of Tchaikovsky. For the cadenza, Stern’s double-stops, slides, extended trills, and flute-tone harmonics create their own, impressive bravura. The acceleration to coda and the final pages themselves spearhead heroically to a potent conclusion.
The Canzonetta: Andante, for my money, has never had an intimate realization superior to that of Francescatti and Mitropoulos, but I must admit Stern and Koussevitzky imbue the movement with studied introspection. The often hazy string accompaniment enjoys the lovely intonation that Koussevitzky’s long experience—including his own expertise on the bass fiddle—with the low strings and winds in Boston has endowed him. The breathed pauses more than once remind me of a scene from Evgeny Onegin. There is an unfortunate, slight break before the Finale: Allegro vivacissimo—but once the momentum sets in, it clears the way for a fervent, inspired rush of Russian, Cossack energies.
Again, we owe Mark Obert-Thorn a debt of gratitude for another contribution to his treasury of inspired collaborations we would otherwise sorely miss.
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